VOLANT, Pa. – Driving through the Volant Straits, six members of the Tweetspeak class stopped periodically as our driver pointed out various bird species. There were crows here and there, a few flocks of geese, and more gulls than you could count. We were in search of the Sandhill Crane, but something that caught my attention on this stretch of road was something sprinting around in the mud in short bursts. I learned it was a Killdeer. With such a strange name, I’m sure I’d remember hearing it, so I know I’d never seen one before.
What’s in a name?
Does a Killdeer actually kill deer? Could it be deadly? The Killdeer is actually named after the call it makes. Often described as high and strident or harsh, the call is meant to do a couple of things: to warn predators that they’ve been noticed and to serve as an alarm to the community.
But with a call so obnoxious, why haven’t I noticed these little guys before? They seem to blend in pretty well, with their two signature black bands around their necks, their white underbelly, and their rusty brownish wings, back, and head. As it turns out, I’ve heard them plenty of times before, I had just never known what to call them. Since I didn’t know much about this bird, I decided to do some more of my own research. For that, I headed to the Cornell Lab of Ornithology’s webpage on the Killdeer at allaboutbirds.org.
When in doubt, put on an act
There was something in particular that stood out to me in my research. This little shorebird is apparently quite accomplished in theatrics. It is known for what’s called the “broken wing display,” which is exactly as it sounds. Since the Killdeer nests on the ground, it’s very easy for a predator to get to it. In order to try to distract the predator and hopefully lure it away, the mother Killdeer moves a short distance away from her nest, frantically chattering. Once attention is diverted, she dramatically flops her wings and body around to fake like her wings are broken. Since an adult Killdeer would make a much bigger meal than a few small eggs, it is likely that a predator will fall for this display.
That’s not the only trick this bird has up its metaphorical sleeve, though. Another risk to nesting on the ground is the fact that the nest may get trampled on. On one hand, you want your nest do blend into its surroundings so that predators will miss it. However, sometimes you need a temporary flashing sign so the nest isn’t put in harm’s way accidentally. The mother Killdeer can also act as the flashing sign. When something is getting too close, the mother will puff herself up, flash her tail around, and may even charge in an attempt to push whatever is coming in another direction and away from her nest. She may or may not squawk the whole time.
An accomplished thespian, this bird is sure to both annoy and amaze all at once. Now whenever I am out in the field, I will definitely be able to recognize the Killdeer’s peculiar call and behavior.